By Michael Kagan
Four years ago next month, UNHCR issued its Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, perhaps the UN’s most important 21st Century statement of protection strategy. Depending on who you listen to, we are either at the nascent stages of a new era of rights-based refugee assistance, or due for a skeptical realization that not much as changed.
On paper and in rhetoric, the 2009 urban policy represents a break from fundamental flaws of 20th Century refugee practice. A previous 1997 version of this policy was understood as condemning urban refugees as “irregular movers,” troublemakers who were making it more difficult for UNHCR and its partners. Camps were normal and good, and refugees should be discouraged from trying to leave them.
In UNHCR’s words, the new policy “marks the beginning of a new approach.” Refugees are now to be reconceived as people with autonomy. The focus is to be on their rights, their legal status, their ability to support themselves and to raise their families in dignity.
But as always, the situation on the ground is more complicated. Four years on, the world is still littered with refugee camps imposed on refugees whether they like it or not. In East Africa, on the Thai border with Burma, in dozens of other places refugees are directly or indirectly forced to live in remote camps.